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Prison privatization dies in Senate 21-19

“You know, I’m not a big government guy. But government should be in charge of the custody, care and control of inmates,” Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Gainesville Republican and retired sheriff, said during debate on the bill Tuesday. “That’s government’s responsi­bility.”
Published Feb. 15, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — A massive expansion of private prisons in Florida collapsed in the Senate Tuesday as nine Republicans joined a dozen Democrats in handing a setback to Senate leaders and a victory to state workers.

As a result, the state will not undertake what would have been the single greatest expansion of prison privatization in U.S. history, affecting 27 prisons and work camps in 18 counties and displacing more than 3,500 correctional officers.

Senate leaders immediately said they would have to cut education and health care programs by $16.5 million, the amount supporters had said privatization would save in the first year.

The 21-19 Senate vote reinforced the chamber's long-standing reputation for independence, as it has shown over the years on many issues, from abortion rights to immigration to the Terri Schiavo case.

Tuesday's vote was a triumph for a rebellious group of Republicans who rejected supporters' arguments that for-profit prisons would save tax dollars and increase efficiency. All 12 Democrats also voted no, putting the minority party in the unaccustomed role of being on the winning side.

Leading the opposition was a trio of local senators: Paula Dockery of Lakeland, Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

Six others also defected from the GOP leadership to sink privatization for the second straight year. A similar plan, written into the budget in the 2011 session, was declared unconstitutional by a state judge; the state is appealing that ruling.

Senators debated privatization for nearly three hours, and opponents' floor speeches often showed more passion. Rather than talk about numbers, they talked about people, such as the treatment of correctional officers, whose starting salary is $34,000 a year and who have not received an across-the-board pay raise for the past six years.

"What's wrong with state employees?" said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole. "We should be taking care of them, rather than kicking them under the bus."

Prison guards displaced by privatization could have "bumped" less experienced officers from their jobs upstate. But, Jones said, with the current housing crisis, many are trapped in their homes and couldn't sell them if they wanted.

Across the Capitol in the House, one key leader said the vote ends discussion of privatization for the year. "I guess that's one less thing that we will be dealing with this session," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who's in line to be House speaker next fall.

The Senate's leading privatization supporter, Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, described his work as budget chairman and the frustration of dealing with a hidebound Department of Corrections that is unwilling to modernize.

Alexander said the agency, for instance, has dragged its feet in switching from paper time cards to electronic time clocks for employees.

"We have consistently over my 14 years failed to make systemic change in the basic operating structure of prisons," Alexander said.

Opposition from two GOP senators proved to be pivotal: Charlie Dean of Inverness and Steve Oelrich of Gainesville, both conservative former sheriffs who ran county jails. Both men resisted personal lobbying by Gov. Rick Scott and said it was wrong to privatize public safety in an entire region of the state.

"I'm scared about the whole idea of private companies being responsible for taking away someone's freedom and keeping them there," Oelrich said.

Senators opposing the privatization plan cited a letter from Jim McDonough, who ran Florida prisons under former Gov. Jeb Bush after a major scandal. McDonough urged a no vote on the grounds that the projected savings were unreliable.

For weeks, labor unions rallied opposition to privatization. They included the Teamsters, who now represent correctional officers, the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and the Florida Education Association.

Explaining a rare defeat for the Senate GOP leadership, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a long-time nemesis of organized labor, said: "The unions have a strong presence here and that was shown today again. A lot of members relate to that."

A lobbyist for private prison operator GEO Group, Jim Eaton, conceded that the issue is dead in the Legislature for now, but he said Scott can implement privatization on his own because the budget of 2010-11 included money to outsource some South Florida prisons. "He has the authority to do it if he wants to," Eaton said.

Scott declined to say whether he would expand prison privatization on his own.

"What I'm focused on is to make sure the right thing happens," the governor said. "No one sits here and says, 'Gosh, every service that citizens of the state want has to be paid with their tax dollars and has to be (done) by someone who works for the state.' They want the most efficient, the most effective way of doing it."

The state is separately privatizing all medical, dental, mental health and pharmaceutical services for all 100,000 inmates statewide.

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Tia Mitchell and Katie Sanders contributed to this report.

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